July 15--VALPARAISO -- The city faces challenges of the old and new.
Valparaiso is virtually built out; there only are a handful of small lots available for development. At the same time, the city's master plan is outdated and needs a thorough revision to move forward.
"What Val-p needs more than anything is we just need to define what we are," City Administrator Carl Scott said. "If we're going to be the bedroom community of Eglin, then let's be the bedroom community of Eglin. We're not going to be an industrial metropolis, so it's just a matter of defining who you are and marketing yourself in that direction."
One of the biggest issues Scott sees is that for the most part, residents are not engaged in their community. He said all the ideas and decisions cannot come from just the few elected officials.
"It can't be just when you have an issue," Scott said. "Government doesn't just work around the issues. It's 24/7. It's big business, and if you're really going to make sure your city is moving in the direction you'd like to see it, then participate.
"(The public) is where you get your fresh ideas and your new thoughts and all that new influx of ideas, and for the most part I don't see those people here," he added. "They don't come to our board meetings. Nobody comes to talk to me directly about what they'd like to see going on in the city. Without that, you end up with maintaining the status quo. And if you're maintaining the status quo, then you're already behind. Today's markets and technologies don't appreciate the status quo."
Scott and longtime Mayor Bruce Arnold want residents to attend meetings and speak to city leaders.
About two years ago, the city had to consolidate three of its volunteer boards into one because they could not find enough people to fill all the openings.
However, Arnold said the perceived lack of community engagement also can be perceived as a positive.
"I think what we do well is provide services to our residents," Arnold said. "More than anything else, that's the prime function of government: to see to the needs of the residents. We have our own garbage pickup, TV cable, telephone, water, sewage and we have all of our parks, which we try to keep current.
"In this day and age, everybody is so cotton-picking busy," Arnold added. "Life is a merry-go-round. And really, when people are happy and satisfied they don't say anything. They just keep rocking along. If they have a complaint or need something, then you'll hear something. And I think with the lack of complaints, we're doing a pretty good job."
Although Valparaiso is just about built out, Scott said there is an avenue for new development. A lot of the homes were built in the 1940s and '50s and no longer comply with today's housing standards.
"Just being in the building business and being the building inspector for the city of Val-p, you realize that insurance companies are getting tougher and tougher to deal with, and their rates are getting almost to where it's not affordable to own a home," Scott said. "To be able to do that, some of these older structures just need to come to the ground and be rebuilt to a new standard so the insurance is affordable.
"The insurance business will eventually put a crush on making revitalization a key element of any municipality," he added.
And then there is Valparaiso's relationship with Eglin Air Force Base.
Valparaiso was incorporated in 1921 and is the second oldest city in Okaloosa County to Crestview. Valparaiso even outdates Eglin, which was established in 1935.
Eglin is more than a neighbor for Valparaiso. The base actually takes up about 87 percent of the land in the city limits.
"One of the problems we have is the fact is there's no possibility for expansion in the city," Arnold said. "We're bounded by the water, by Niceville and by Eglin, and we're almost built out."
Scott calls Valparaiso the bedroom community of Eglin. But at the same time, the city embarked on an expensive legal battle with the Air Force over issues surrounding the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
"The lawsuit didn't have anything to do with the way the community views the military," Scott said. "The lawsuit was just a ... survival thing. The city really only has certain avenues that it can use to ensure its future survival, and the lawsuit was just a necessity for that. It didn't have anything to do with our love for the military or anyone wanting to hurt the other party. And I don't think the military has that in mind, either.
"I don't think the issue is between the Air Force and the city," he added. "The issue is because we have so many different laws that everybody has to comply with that we didn't have in the past."
Arnold said Valparaiso has three issues related to federal requirements that put the city at odds with Eglin.
Noise continues to be the main issue, as many homes are in a high-noise area and have been deemed unfit for residential use by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Parts of the city also are in the F-35 crash zone and accident potential zone because of their proximity to Eglin's runways. That caused the Wolverine Park girls softball field to be closed more than three years ago.
Valparaiso has 18 homes in the crash zone that must be leveled, but Congress has yet to approve the funding to buy the properties, Arnold said.
He said about half of the city's population now deals with one or more of those issues.
"Our future all depends on what the Air Force does with the F-35. That's going to affect housing and everything else," Arnold said. "Eglin recognizes it is a problem, and we are working together trying to solve it. We have two people that represent the city on the Eglin Noise Committee."
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